A studying plan organizes three things:
- What you have to learn.
- How you’re going to learn it.
- When you’re going to invest the time.
Although it sounds simple, most students don’t make a detailed study plan. Of those that do, they often make mistakes that render the plan highly unrealistic—a recipe for future guilt, not future learning.
In this article, I’m going to outline how to make a studying plan—and how you can stick to it.
Why Make a Studying Plan?
Learning is effortful. Although that effort can be enjoyable, our impulses about what to do in the moment often don’t coincide with what would maximize learning. Indeed, the research shows that students frequently choose activities that feel fun but don’t deliver results.
A good analogy is exercise. While playing a sport or going for a jog can be fun, our brains are designed to avoid unnecessary physical exertion. That’s why you rarely see anyone over the age of ten running down the street unless they’re late for an appointment.
If you want to develop fitness without injuring yourself, it helps to have a workout plan you can and will stick to, rather than just going to the gym whenever you feel like and working on whatever equipment you stumble into.
The logic is the same for studying. Having a plan maximizes the chance of investing effort where it counts to create learning.
Step One: Review Your Materials
I’m assuming you’ve already chosen some class, book, tutorials or other curriculum to guide you. (If you haven’t, the first step is to do your research and find a good resource for the skill you’re trying to learn!)
The starting point is to review your curriculum and figure out:
- What are the lessons you’ll need to watch/read/review?
- What are the practice activities you need to engage in?
- What are the required deliverables (essays/homework) you need to complete?
- How will you need to use the skills and knowledge you’ve gained? Consider things like the format of the final exam as well as where you plan to apply the skills and knowledge you’re learning.
A pure practice project may be an exception. In this kind of project, you’re not working off materials but trying to practice or implement knowledge you’ve gained elsewhere. For a practice project, you’re creating your own curriculum, so you can choose your own pace. These tend to be more successful when you’ve gone beyond the beginner period and can more successfully guide your own practice.
Step Two: Calculate Your Minimum Time Investment
The minimum time investment includes all the work you must put in to complete the class as specified. This includes:
- How long will it take to do the required readings?
- How long will it take to watch any videos/lectures/lessons?
- How long will it take to finish the required deliverables (homework, essays, projects)?
Videos and recorded lectures are easy to estimate: you can add up the run time of all the videos. Will you be able to watch at an accelerated pace? If so, you can divide the total by the estimated playback rate (e.g., 1.5 or 2 times speed). Otherwise, this time is a fixed amount based on how long the lessons are.
For required readings, you need an estimate of your reading rate. You can get a first approximation by timing yourself reading a few pages and extrapolating that to the whole book. Read slowly and deliberately; the speed for long reading sessions is inevitably slower than a few-minute sprint.
Homework is hard to estimate in advance, but you may be able to get an estimate from the course provider, teacher or past students.
The general idea here is to calculate the minimum time investment to work through the materials you’ve been provided—without any additional studying.
Step Three: Estimate Additional Studying Time Needs
For some classes, simply doing all the work assigned will allow you to pass the test and apply it in real life. But for most classes, you’ll have to go beyond this.
Some additional places you might expect to invest time are:
- Extra practice questions/homework.
- Application to real-life problems and contexts.
- Creating/reviewing flashcards.
- Self-explanations, such as the Feynman Technique.
- Extra research not mentioned in the syllabus.
A good way to estimate this is by looking at your personal historical data: how much time have you typically needed to invest, beyond the minimum curriculum, to achieve the results you want from the class? There’s no “correct” answer here. Some classes are time-intensive, and the required material is challenging to get through. Other classes are sparse and leave it to students to master the material on their own.
Step Four: Schedule Studying in Your Calendar
Once you have an itemized list of your expected time investment, you need to figure out when you’re actually going to do everything.
Put any due dates, exams, live lectures or lessons directly in your calendar. For reading, working on homework, practice efforts and other forms of studying, you should still allocate time for them, but there are two different ways to do it:
- The most rigorous option is to schedule everything as an appointment. I recommend this approach if studying has to fit inside an already crowded schedule. So if you’re a busy parent and professional studying for a licensing exam, you’d better put studying time directly in your calendar, or it will get pushed to the side in the moment.
- The more flexible option is to create a weekly or daily routine. The exact activities in each block would vary depending on your goals, but the time commitments themselves would be relatively routine. For instance, you might decide to study every morning before work, or in the evenings, or on weekends.
Step Five: Sanity Check
At this point in the process, we can do a basic sanity check: how does your calculated time investment from Step Two and Step Three compare with the time you’ve scheduled? If your available time for the project is less than the estimated minimum, you’ve already got a non-starter. You need to clear more time in your schedule, rethink the aims of the learning project, or expand the timeline you are allowing to complete it.
If your available time is slightly over what you’ve budgeted, you have little room for error. Getting sick, an unexpectedly challenging topic or a surprise interruption could derail the whole project.
If you have substantially more time available than you’ve budgeted, that’s not necessarily a sign to relax. With too much slack, you might not feel the pressure to study when you need to and end up wasting time procrastinating. In those cases, I recommend setting soft deadlines that push the work ahead of the more relaxed schedule. This approach can keep the pressure comfortable but challenging, so you have more room for error later.
Step Six: Getting Feedback
Making a plan is the easy part. The hard part is sticking to it. Fortunately, if you keep an eye on the feedback you’re getting while you’re studying and adjust accordingly, the plan you make can be an invaluable guide rather than something that gets tossed aside at the first brush with difficulty.
Consider these sources of feedback:
1. Feedback on sticking to your schedule.
The first source of feedback is your ability to implement the plan. A helpful strategy is simply to write your intention on an agenda or planner each day and then record what you actually did. For example, you might have intended to study for three hours on Wednesday, but you were interrupted and only got in two hours.
Whenever there are deviations from your plan, it’s helpful to note the source of the obstacle. Even though you can’t control everything that deflects you from your plan, few obstacles are insurmountable if you can recognize them. Consider:
- Deviations due to interruptions from others. Communicate boundaries for your studying time so others appreciate its importance. If you can’t avoid interruptions, find fall-back studying slots in your schedule to make up for occasional, unavoidable interruptions.
- Deviations from lack of preparation. Your computer died. You couldn’t log into your account to access the lesson. You had to buy colored pencils. Find a way to do these things before your scheduled session or eliminate them as unnecessary.
- Deviations because of procrastination/motivation. Use the Pomodoro technique, lower your expectations for proficiency in the session to avoid perfectionism, or alternate between reading/practice to avoid mind wandering or boredom.
Learning is effortful and genuine obstacles can arise, making it hard to stick to one’s plan. However, if you can identify what is causing the interruptions, you can find remedies in many cases.
2. Feedback on your learning progress.
The second source of feedback concerns your progress in learning. Sometimes skills and subjects gel instantly, and you don’t need to review them. In other cases, the new material can seem bewildering and exceed your estimates of how long it will take to master.
Once again, the key is to observe the feedback and break it down:
- Are you struggling because the basics aren’t firmly entrenched? Drills, flashcards and repeated practice on simple problems can help fix this.
- Are you struggling because you don’t understand a difficult idea? Self-explanations, talking to teachers/peers/tutors and finding alternative explanatory sources can be helpful.
- Are you struggling because you can’t see what you’re doing wrong or how to improve it? Seeking coaching, corrective feedback or guidance may be helpful.
The more granular you can be in identifying your problems, the easier they are to resolve. Zooming in on particular concepts, movements, facts or procedures is the key to getting past difficulties.
Step Seven: Making Modifications
Once you’ve gotten some feedback, you may need to modify your plan. That might involve increasing the hours you invest if you’re falling behind, or you might change your routine so that you can actually invest the hours you said you would.
In the end, you may not stick to your plan with total rigidity. The primary benefit of planning isn’t to eliminate all improvisation and flexibility. Rather it’s to marshal the resources of time and energy needed to learn and identify obstacles ahead of time so you can avoid most of them. What’s ultimately useful is less the plan itself, but the thinking that goes into creating it.